Bennett High School has consistently failed to meet state standards for years, so in September the district brought in a new principal from out of state to turn around the beleaguered school.
But the state Education Department told officials they had to do more. Now the district is considering a dramatic overhaul of Bennett by gradually closing the current school while simultaneously phasing in a new program in the same building, perhaps one involving the University at Buffalo. The district sent that plan to state officials last week.
But many teachers and at least some parents say the problem is not the structure or the program, it’s the first-year principal, Terry Ross.
And critics wonder how the latest proposal – in which upperclassmen continue until graduation – is good for students if Ross remains in charge.
In an anonymous survey conducted by the Buffalo Teachers Federation, teachers painted a picture of weapons, drugs and near-daily fights and assaults. They almost unanimously said the school is not safe for students or teachers, and they criticized Ross, calling him an inexperienced and ineffective leader not interested in forging a relationship with staff.
State ultimatum or not, they want Ross gone by the end of this school year, in a clash that comes amid the district’s efforts to turn around Bennett and other under perennially failing schools.
For his part, Ross said it takes at least three years to turn around a school and that he has begun what is a long-term “process.”
The state deems Bennett a “priority” school, meaning students have failed for years to meet state learning standards. Only 35 percent of seniors graduated in 2012, while 41 percent dropped out, according to the most recent state data. Fewer than 60 percent of Bennett seniors passed standardized math and science exams in 2012.
Given that history, the district tried to shake things up by bringing in Ross from Memphis.
Yet despite data pointing to the need for dramatic change, teachers insist Ross is going about it the wrong way.
The survey results are “probably one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” said BTF President Phil Rumore. “I think it’s obvious that he just is not the person for the job. We need somebody that has experience in the high school and who can bring the faculty together as a whole. That’s what a leader does. A leader works with everybody and then gets everybody on board.”
Ross was recruited by Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, the nonprofit trying to revive the 14215 ZIP code area, where Bennett is located. His record as a “transformational leader and turnaround specialist” was the basis for his hiring, district officials said.
Ross, who started at Bennett last September, acknowledged that his tenure has been a little rocky.
“It’s not an event. It’s a process,” Ross said. “We’re working on team development, on building relationships, finding the land mines. You’re finding out where things are and how they work.”
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown would not comment on the specifics of the teacher survey but said she had reviewed it.
“Certainly, we take those surveys very seriously, and we read them, and we glean whatever we can from them that can be helpful to us,” she said.
Revolt in the ranks
Last December, the BTF survey was completed anonymously by 50 of the 77 union members at the school, though not every teacher answered every question. The results were released in January. Only three out of 48 called Bennett a safe place for teachers, and only one out of 49 believes it’s a safe for students.
In the survey’s open-ended portion, teachers paint of picture of chaos:
• “The students are at risk. Administration did not address a bully concern so the student that was being bullied brought a weapon to school.”
• “There are multiple fights daily. Students enter and exit the building daily – some are known to carry weapons & drugs. There are no consequences so the students do as they please.”
• “There are more fights than ever. Students feel emboldened and routinely curse us out. I reported observing a substitute teacher being shoved. I know of no action taken against student.”
• “There have been teachers assaulted by students with no appropriate discipline and this has continued since September. No metal detectors used at all this year, wands used once ... on every 3rd student! Gang members wearing ‘colors’ again with no response.”
• “Students are roaming the hallways. I have both witnessed and heard stories of students walking into classrooms and starting fights. Students are being jumped in the bathrooms. Before and after school students are fighting.”
Ross countered that suspensions are down since he’s been principal, and district data support the claim. There were 84 suspensions from September 2013 through January this year, down from 146 during the same period the year before.
But the survey indicates teachers think the new principal is lax on discipline and slow to suspend.
Ross also noted that two or three city police cars would be stationed at the school at the end of the day when he took over, but the school is so safe now that the police presence is no longer there.
“I didn’t tell them not to come,” he said. Buffalo police did not respond to requests for comment.
District statistics on altercations at Bennett show that incidents are down. There were 71 from September 2012 through January 2013, under the previous principal. Twenty-eight occurred in December 2012 alone.
Since Ross has been at the helm, there have been 44. Infractions include physical altercations and harassment, verbal threats and intimidations against students and adults, carrying knives and handguns and drug possession.
Rumore also noted that from September – when Ross came on board – through February of this year, teachers at Bennett have filed nine grievances. Most revolved around discipline and violence concerns, but one also came from a teacher accusing Ross of making “adverse comments” about the teacher’s attire and complaining that the principal “is singling me out and using me as a school-wide example.”
No grievances were filed during the same time period the year before, Rumore said.
“Some are good at math. Some people are not. Some people can be a good administrator and some cannot. It’s not whether you’re a good person ... This person was not cut out for running a high school,” Rumore said.
Focused on students
Ross’ resume shows he has worked at a high school – though not as principal – has leadership experience and has worked with other school districts and agencies as an education consultant.
He acknowledged that initially he may have been less than sympathetic to Bennett teachers and that his approach is primarily student-focused. And for that, he makes no apologies.
“We call our students scholars. We teach them what scholars are to prepare them for careers and college,” said Ross, whose high school experience dates back to 1996 in Birmingham, Ala., where he was a teacher, football coach and program developer for a violence-prevention plan.
His background in administration includes a two-year stint as associate superintendent in the St. Louis Public Schools beginning in 2006.
He was principal at Getwell Elementary School in Memphis from 2001 to 2006 and at Broad Street Middle School in Mississippi from 1999 to 2001, before returning to be director of leadership and school performance in Memphis from 2008 to 2010.
Ross also worked as an education consultant through his company, International Institute for Global Academic Proficiency. He did leadership development, trained and coached principals, and he helped design, plan and implement school improvement services, his résumé indicated.
At Bennett, Ross said he underestimated the period of healing that needed to take place in a school that had four principals in one 12-month span. David Mauricio, who had been principal for three years, left in August 2012 to become the district’s chief of school leadership. He was followed by his assistant principal, Carlos Alvarez, from September 2012 to January 2013. Alvarez is now at International Prep. Teena Jackson took over from the end of January 2013 to July 2013, when she became principal at STAR Academy @ Grover. Ross was brought on board last July.
“What happens is, one group gets aligned with one principal and then he leaves,” and so on, Ross said. “You’re going to feel a sense of loss.”
In addition, teachers and staff also feel that they are constantly being blamed for many of the problems at the school, especially low student performance.
“I did not factor into the equation that there were a lot of open wounds. There is a lot of hurt,” the new principal said. “I didn’t factor in the healing process.”
One parent of a sophomore at the school said the problem does seem to be the principal. Last year, when her son started there as a freshman, the environment felt safer and there seemed to be more structure, she said.
But this year, the school seems chaotic, less safe and less structured.
During a recent meeting with her son’s teacher, the parent said she witnessed students – at least 13 – roaming and running through the halls during class time, goofing off and up to no good. Some were wearing headphones.
At one point, she said, she witnessed two girls direct a boy to distract an adult hall monitor so the girls could sneak into the empty auditorium during class time.
“The girls were looking at us as we watched them sneak in, and they were laughing because they know they can get away with it,” she said, asking not to be identified because she does not want her son to be singled out at school.
She said she had never seen this kind of behavior at Bennett. “It wasn’t like this last year. The only thing that’s changed is the principal,” she said.
Still, the parent said she is not anti-Ross. She is for anyone who can improve Bennett now – not in the four years it will take to complete the superintendent’s phase-in, phase-out plan.
Under that proposal, she said, her son would continue in the same failing school, with current sophomores, juniors and seniors remaining until graduation.
Starting in September, incoming freshmen would be part of a new, separate “school in good standing” housed within the same building. A new class would be added each year as a current class graduates, until the new program completely replaces the current Bennett in four years.
Critics say that’s too long to wait.
But despite the harsh BTF survey, Ross has supporters, including 20-year-old Michael Billups, a Bennett senior who was supposed to graduate in 2012 but didn’t because of personal and behavioral issues.
Billups said he had a “rough start” at the beginning of the school year and would have dropped out if it hadn’t been for Ross, who the young man thought was “cocky” when he first met the principal.
Now Billups is on track to graduate in June.
“We got to know each other. I think he’s a great leader,” Billups said. “I’ve had some principals who didn’t care if I passed or not. I’ve had some principals tell me, ‘You need to drop out now.’ ”
Ross, on the other hand, “told me, ‘I need you to graduate.’ If that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is,” the student said.
Others acknowledge that Ross and the school have significant challenges.
David Chamberlain, executive director of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, the local organization that recruited Ross, characterized him as “pretty aggressive, and there’s no doubt he’s rubbed some staff the wrong way.”
He also pointed out that Bennett has been sliding for many years as enrollment, attendance and graduation rates “continue to decline further.” In addition, he noted the turnover in the position.
“It’s tough to get sustainable traction,” Chamberlain said. “It’s certainly a difficult situation, and there are many teachers who are resistant, many who have been there for a long time.”
Ross stepped into a difficult situation and, “given half a chance,” he’ll be able to put Bennett back on track, said another of his supporters, Cynthia Collins, Bennett’s parent facilitator, PTA coordinator and District Parent Coordinating Council representative. She was named parent facilitator three years ago by a former principal and gets a stipend for organizing parents and getting them involved.
Collins said Ross is trying to be innovative in his approach to students.
“He’s trying to give respect to the young people because he believes they should be lifted up. But that’s not everybody’s approach,” she said. “That’s why he has not been backed as much as he could be.
“He’s only been there since September,” she added. “With a little help, he will be able to bring Bennett back to the place where I’ve seen it at its greatest. He has a lot of things to offer the school.”